Brian Viner: How horses gallop into our hearts

Our relationship with racehorses is simpler than with other sport stars
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The Independent Online

Enjoyable as it has been these last couple of days to see South African wickets tumbling, the transcendent sporting spectacle of the Christmas period was surely that of the mighty nine-year-old steeplechaser Kauto Star obliterating a formidable field to win his fourth successive King George VI Chase by a margin officially classified as "a distance".

This essentially means that there were so many lengths between him and the next horse past the post that nobody could be bothered to count them. And as exultant jockey Ruby Walsh slowed the 8-13 favourite to a canter, the huge Boxing Day crowd at Kempton Park gave a thunderous ovation to a racehorse that has now achieved what no horse has ever managed before, winning four King Georges on the bounce.

Desert Orchid also won the big race four times, but only three times in succession, and he was beaten twice. Kauto Star has never lost the King George. He is now clear favourite to win his third Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. Valid comparisons are being made between him and Arkle, the Irish horse whose feats in the mid-1960s earned him an enduring reputation as the greatest steeplechaser ever saddled, the Sir Donald Bradman, the Tiger Woods, the Roger Federer, the Usain Bolt, the Maradona ... hell, the Phil "The Power" Taylor of the turf.

But it is an invidious business to compare human sporting superstars with their equine counterparts. Our relationship with great racehorses is much simpler, not least because we know where they are at night. Stable, that's where they are, and what they are. Arkle never got drunk, Desert Orchid didn't have a gambling habit, Red Rum didn't cheat on his wife, Best Mate didn't fiddle his taxes, Kauto Star doesn't snort cocaine, Sea The Stars won't ever be caught doing 125mph on the M4. Which is not to say that horses don't have idiosyncrasies of temperament, nor is it to say that the above-named sportsmen have committed the above-named transgressions. But some of them have. And, inevitably, their human frailties – as so often and with such relish exposed by the media – make them fragile gods.

Nor is there with horses that other complicating factor, envy, a frailty of our own rather than in those we revere. We can admire a horse's galloping power without wondering why we weren't similarly blessed ourselves. We can even admire his looks yet feel pretty sure that we wouldn't want his teeth. Or his sex life. Not all racehorses enjoy their retirement mounting pretty fillies. In fact most of those named above were, or are, geldings.

Sometimes it seems as if we'd prefer our human sports stars to be geldings. I don't condone the way Tiger Woods has behaved but epic promiscuity in the world of sport is nothing new. Athletes at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester were provided with 150,000 free condoms. What has provoked such excoriation in his case is that he traded on a squeaky-clean image. We don't like to think of him rolling in the hay. Kauto Star, by contrast, is welcome.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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